Don't Fix the Problem.  Fix the Blame.

CRAP: When something goes wrong -- in business, politics, public policy, whatever -- our first reaction is to find out who screwed up and to publicly pillory that person.

Alternative: When something goes wrong, recognize 

Don't shoot the person.  Fix the trap.  Remove it, put orange warning cones around it, make sure that no other unfortunate soul will step into it again.  

The American Style

One of the watchwords of the eighties, early nineties, American fascination with Japanese management was "English style." This referred to the American desire, derived from the English tradition, according to the Japanese, to fix blame when something goes wrong. Must find a scapegoat. First, find a scapegoat. Then, having crucified that person, we can proceed with the project as though nothing happened.

The Japanese attitude, according to the management texts of the time, was very different, almost antipodal to the American/English approach. "Fix the problem, not the blame." It's a failure of the process not the person. Everyone makes mistakes. There are lots of mistakes that can be made. Fix the process, fix the system so that this mistake cannot be made again, and you will have succeeded in fixing all the people.

To summarize the stylistic differences: 

American Japanese
A person caused the problem. A person stumbled into a problem that was waiting to be found.
Find the guilty party. Find the process that failed.
Shoot the person. Fix the process.
We made an example of that turkey, so no one will do *that* again.  We fixed the process, so that error cannot possibly happen again.
Retribution. Improvement.

Affixing the blame and punishing the scapegoat, guilty or otherwise, is more important than making progress. The main problem with fixing the blame, particularly with fixing it first and in public, is that there is rarely energy left to pave over that elephant pit that some poor soul stepped into. Fixing the blame becomes the focus of the healing process instead of fixing the system. Not focused on progress.

Now, surely, life is not all that guilt-free in Japan. Surely managers who make big or expensive mistakes are put in the penalty box for a while, maybe forever. "The window office" from which he can contemplate his mistakes and maybe learn from them. (In Japan, it is invariably "he."  Sorry, ladies.)  But the need to Fix The System is more important, more prominent, more publicly visible than the public execution would be here.

I was reminded how ingrained this is in our culture the other day while watching the PBS American Experience special on building the Golden Gate bridge. At one point during construction, a large piece of bridge failed and fell, breaking the safety net below the span and killing ten men. This incident ended the otherwise nearly perfect safety record of the bridge project.

The film showed the headline of a newspaper the next day, something like

        10 Killed in Bridge Accident

much as you would expect. But the sub-head of that article -- ah, the sub-head, that's where we put the editorial comment. The headline tells us what happened. The sub-head tells what the editor thinks should be done about it -- the sub-head is where our true mean-spirited nature shows through:

            Must Fix Blame

Yessir, that's the American way. Never mind that the project to that date had an exemplary record, with only a small fraction of the deaths normally expected on such an enterprise. Never mind that, even with this incident, the total number of deaths was less than half of the expected number. No, no, can't give credit for good deeds in the past. Must Fix Blame. Can you hear the Red Queen ranting, "Off with their heads!" High tea and croquet on the lawn and "Off with their heads!" That's the tradition.

To be entirely clear about this, I'm sure that it's not purely an English tradition. The French are probably just as bloodthirsty for retribution as the English. And Scots and Welsh and Irish and Germans and . . . . Public excoriation in the media is just the modern, polite version of real flaying or the guillotine.  And national character isn't what I'm really trying to get at here.  I don't mean just Japanese versus American.  I mean useful versus useless.  I mean smart versus dumb.  Some strategies are more useful than others.  Some strategies are just petty and wasteful.  Pick one.  Pick wisely.  

This is one part of the English tradition that I'm not all that enamored of. Democracy, stable government, orderly transitions, personal freedom, the rule of law, justice, those are all good things to love in our tradition. But this blame thing really gets in our way.


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